Cauliflower: A Mexican market staple and vegetable of the year 2014

articles Food & Cuisine

Karen Hursh Graber

Mexican Kitchen
Cauliflower with Mexican poblano cream sauce © Karen Hursh Graber, 2014
Cauliflower with Mexican poblano cream sauce © Karen Hursh Graber, 2014

Step aside, kale. We’ve had you in everything from soup to lollypops, but it’s a New Year and there is a new title holder for Vegetable of the Year. According to Christine Couvelier, a culinary trendologist (yes, that’s the job title, not a word I made up, although somebody surely did) at Metro News, this cruciferous veggie will outdo even kale as a favored recipe and menu ingredient in 2014.

In Mexico, cauliflower has been a market staple for as long as I can remember — since 1987. No hype required, just lovely heads of white florets standing out among the greens in the mercado. When I first started shopping at the Cholula market all those years ago, coliflor was one of the vegetables that were comfortingly familiar, well before even broccoli started showing up on a regular basis.

A column on cauliflower, after last month’s piece on cabbage, may seem to indicate that I’m pushing vegetables. Maybe I am. Mexico and the U.S. are now the world’s fattest nations and, whichever side of the border you’re sitting on and reading this, a lot of print space is currently being devoted to health and dietary issues.

To its credit, Mexico is doing something about the problem, in the form of the new tax on soda and junk food. But besides eliminating empty calories and processed foods, there needs to be more of an emphasis on fresh food, the kind found at the municipal markets and open air tianguis. There is a good variety of vegetables in many markets, including — back to the topic — cauliflower.

The appeal of cauliflower can be summed up in three words, the same three that characterize many of the best culinary ingredients: color, flavor, and texture. While the pure white of most cauliflower is generally not considered colorful, this is what makes it so nice to combine with other ingredients. The red of tomatoes, the green of fresh chiles and peppers, the black of turtle beans, really pop against the white cauliflower.

And then there are the brightly colored varieties of cauliflower. In addition to white, this vegetable comes in orange, purple and green. These are not genetically engineered, but are natural mutants of white cauliflower. The orange variety gets its color from beta carotene, the purple from the antioxidant anthocyanin, and the green from chlorophyll. I first saw these beauties at the upscale Superama supermarket in Puebla at least eight or so years ago, though the price was several times higher than that of white cauliflower.

As for flavor, cauliflower is milder than other cruciferous vegetables, slightly sweet and a little nutty, a taste brought out by roasting rather than cooking in water. If you do cook it in water, use only a small amount and do not overcook. It can also be steamed, just to the point of tenderness.

Cauliflower’s texture is perhaps the biggest contributor to its recent surge in popularity. Unless it has been boiled to death, cauliflower can be used as a substitute for meat and even rice. Roasted cauliflower is a unique and flavorful filling for tacos, and a thick slice of cauliflower, roasted until lightly caramelized, stands in for both steak and chicken to make meatless main dishes. Having seen a version of chicken parmesan where cauliflower steps in to take the place of chicken, I decided to try it with chicken poblano, with good results. This is a dish I would happily serve to vegetarian friends.

The vegetable is also used as a low carb substitute for rice. This involves the simple technique of grating raw cauliflower to make a very small mince that really does resemble the size and texture of rice grains. It works with a variety of Mexican seasonings, and red or green cauliflower “rice” is a fine low carb side dish with enchiladas. Nowadays Mexican chefs are serving cauliflower puree to accompany fish and seafood, with scallops at Origen in Oaxaca and with grouper at Mero Toro in Mexico City.

These are all fairly new ways of using cauliflower, but Mexican recipes for it go back a long time, especially in Central Mexico, where this cool weather crop is prepared in several traditional ways. Diana Kennedy, in Essential Cuisines of Mexico, offers a recipe for cauliflower in avocado sauce from a 1911 Mexican cookbook.

And going further back, the monastery cookbook of Friar Geronimo de San Pelayo, written in Mexico City in 1780, has four different recipes for cauliflower, one with onion and tomato, seasoned with clove and saffron, and another with hierba buena, or mint. A cauliflower recipe calling for oil and vinegar resembles the pickled cauliflower served in Mexico today.

Pickled cauliflower, called coliflor en escabeche, is often served as a botana with drinks. Another popular version of the vegetable has it divided into florets, dipped in a light coating of egg and flour, and fried, a very Spanish treatment.

Cauliflower is also served whole. The first time I saw this was at a home in Puebla, where it had been steamed, then covered with a bread crumb mixture and baked. It made a nice presentation, and it was fun to pass it around and fork off individual servings.

Cauliflower is an excellent source of Vitamins C and K, and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. With over nine grams of fiber in every 100 calories, cauliflower provides digestive support and, like other cruciferous vegetables, contains glucosinolates, which inhibit the formation of cancer cells.

When buying cauliflower, look for a compact head in which the bud clusters have not separated. Whether white or one of the colored varieties, it should be free of dark spots. If not using it right away, store it in the refrigerator in a paper bag, with the stem down to prevent moisture from developing in the clusters of florets. It will keep for up to a week this way. If buying pre-cut florets, use within two days. After cooking cauliflower, store leftovers in the refrigerator and use them within three days.

Before preparing cauliflower, remove the outer leaves. If not using it whole, slice the florets from the stalk. Once removed from the stalk, the florets can be cut into smaller pieces. (Use the stalk and leaves in soup stock, if that’s the kind of thing you do. I do.)

Here is a variety of recipes for using cauliflower, some traditional and some new and fun. Even if you’re not a vegetarian, it’s fun to try some ways to use it in dishes usually made with meat.

Published or Updated on: February 4, 2014 by Karen Hursh Graber © 2014
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